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Turkey's Ayci declines Air India CEO role in setback for Tata Group

Complaints by Hindu nationalists over exec's political links lead to rethink

Former Turkish Airlines Chairman Ilker Ayci, declined an offer to become CEO of Air India, citing "attempts "to color my appointment with undesirable colors."   © Reuters

NEW DELHI/ISTANBUL (Reuters) -- Turkey's Ilker Ayci said on Tuesday he will not take on the role of chief executive of Tata Group's Air India, days after the announcement of his appointment led to opposition in India over his previous political links.

Tata last month announced Ayci's appointment as CEO of previously state-run Air India after taking over the debt-laden airline in January in a $2.4 billion equity and debt deal. 

But last week, a Hindu nationalist group close to India's ruling party called on the government to block Ayci's appointment citing his previous political links in Turkey, which has strained relations with New Delhi. 

Ayci, a former chairman of Turkish Airlines, was an adviser in 1994 to Tayyip Erdogan when the Turkish president was mayor of Istanbul.

Ayci said in a statement that in a recent meeting with Tata Chairman N Chandrasekaran he declined to take the post after reading about attempts "to color my appointment with undesirable colors" in some sections of the Indian media.

"As a business leader who has always prioritised professional credo ... I have come to the conclusion that it would not be a feasible or an honorable decision to accept the position in the shadow of such narrative," Ayci said.

A spokesperson for India's Tata confirmed the development, without sharing further details.

The move comes as a setback for India's Tata, which will need to restart the search for a CEO to turn around the loss-making carrier. While the airline has lucrative landing slots, any new chief faces an uphill task to upgrade Air India's aging fleet and turn around its financials and service levels.

The appointment of a foreign national as CEO of an airline in India requires government clearance before it can proceed.

A government source told Reuters last week that India is conducting more stringent than usual checks in the case of Ayci and Air India, because security agencies have flagged concerns about his links in Turkey.

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